Kurdistani Fried Chicken
May 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

Traveling to strange and distant lands can bring many surprises. For us, one of the most pleasant of these unexpected experiences occurred while we were on assignment in the western mountains of Iran, covering the Kurdish uprising following the 1979 revolution to oust the Shah. We'd made pictures at a variety of demonstrations, did a few interviews, and had been pinned down twice in fire fights between the Kurds and government troops. Now we had to rush back to Tehran to edit our video. It was a twelve-hour trip and we'd shot all day without eating anything more substantial than Persian flat bread. We left the provincial capital of Sanandaj around five that afternoon and rattled down the highway in our old Chevy, toward the larger town of Kermanshah and the junction with the Tehran road.

It took about three hours to get to Kermanshah, a compact city along the banks of the Qareh Su. The main features of the town were a small oil refinery lit up like a Christmas tree, and an army camp overflowing with tanks. Fairly starving, we decided to look around for a place to grab some dinner. The hour was late; we expected to find only a kebab house open. We were tired of lamb kebab and rice after a month in Iran, but we knew it would hit the spot. We turned off the main road and headed into downtown Kermanshah. Rounding the first corner we saw a sight that stopped us cold in our tracks. There, standing on the sidewalk, large as life and holding a big bucket of fried chicken, was Colonel Harlan Sanders himself.

At first we thought it must be a mirage, or perhaps a cruel joke. But it was, in fact, an honest-to-goodness Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. What it was doing in the middle of the mountains of Western Iran we'll never know. But at the time it seemed like a Godsend.

As we entered the restaurant we passed the six-foot cardboard cutout of the Colonel. We approached the counter and scanned the illuminated plastic menu board. It was written in Farsi, but we were able to discern that they offered chicken in a variety of shapes, sizes and quantities. The place was tidy and clean, and seemed so familiar that only the writing ruined the image of being back home in small-town America. We figured deep frying would kill almost anything unpleasant, so we took the plunge and ordered the twenty-one piece bucket. For similar reasons of health and hygiene we declined the cole slaw and the potato salad. But the biscuits looked good; we ordered up a few of those, as well as a passel of Cokes and Seven-Ups.

The bucket was in our hands within a few minutes, and we jumped into the car to continue our long trip back to Tehran. As soon as we were rolling we pried off the lid and passed the greasy chicken all around. To our great surprise, pleasure and culinary edification, the stuff tasted absolutely genuine. The flavoring was perfect, the spices were authentic, and the chicken actually had meat on it. It was almost like being in the Blue Grass State; the only thing missing was mint juleps, which was just as well, for Iran was drier than the Sahara by then. And so we feasted.

Feeling revived, and trying to keep our driver from falling asleep, our CBS News correspondent, Jerry Bowen, decided to teach him the Iowa Corn Song, a favorite tune in Jerry's home state. There we were, four chicken-happy adventurers, careening down the road from Kurdistan, singing at the top of our lungs: "We're from Eye-oh-way, Eye-oh-way / That's where the tall corn grows . . ."

But it turned out to be too much for poor Saleem, the driver. Though stuffed with genuine Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken, about halfway to Tehran he insisted upon stopping at a roadside kebab joint for a piece of badly cooked greenish lamb. Finally sated with food his stomach understood, Saleem negotiated us eastward, through the many checkpoints maintained by the Revolutionary Guards, and back to Tehran. We stayed in Iran a few more weeks, but we never had a meal more memorable than our surprise encounter with Kurdistani Fried Chicken.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.


Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist